Memorizing music frees you from the distraction of following notes on a page and allows you to relate to your performance partners and your audience while expressing the music to the fullest extent. Movement, even dance, is a key part of solo ringing, and you generally don’t see dancers with paper in front of them during performance. Having a binder of music (or worse, several binders of music) propped up in front of you prevents the audience from seeing the bells fully and may also block the sound. Even laying the music flat on the table draws your focus away from where it belongs: on the bells and your audience.

I’ve read that people who sight read well tend not to memorize well, and vice versa. If you can read music easily, the theory goes, why would you need to memorize it? If you can memorize easily, that compensates for gaps in your reading skills. Memorizing is a skill that can be acquired, and if you begin memorizing your solos from the very beginning, you’ll build your skill in memorization along with everything else. It’s an essential part of presenting a professional and polished performance in solo (and small ensemble) ringing.

Overview: Get a sense of the story the music is telling. Start by looking at the structure of the piece. A very common structure is ABA, where you have two main sections, and the first one repeats after the second one. That means you have to memorize only 2 blocks, not 3. Maybe it’s an ABBA structure, or ABAB. Whatever it is, you may have to memorize only a fraction of the piece to be able to play the whole thing.

When the A theme repeats, there may be a variation, and you’ll want to drill that difference. Identify explicitly what the difference is, so you can remember it. Maybe the second time you play an octave higher, or in a different key, or with ornamentation. Maybe there’s a change in rhythm or dynamics, or a ritard. Solidify your knowledge of the A section by playing it sometimes where it first occurs, and sometimes from the recapitulation (the second time it occurs). Solidify your knowledge of the B section by giving it extra iterations. If you just play an ABA piece 10 times through as a whole, you’ll have practiced the A section 20 times and the B section 10 times. You have to compensate for this imbalance, or the B section will be fragile in performance. Consider memorizing the B section before memorizing the A section, and playing it on its own many times.

The memorization process: Notice what’s happening within the piece. Use intervals, like octave jumps or a progression in thirds, as landmarks. Exercises that help develop technique will also help you in memorization. For example, if you can identify a passage as a scale that starts at this bell and ends at this other bell, or recognize an arpeggio, you can remember a larger pattern instead of numerous disconnected bells. My very first solo performance was a piece in F major that ended on an F major triad. I didn’t understand that at the time. When it came to the end, and I had four bells in my hands, I couldn’t remember whether the right hand was supposed to ring or knock. I guessed which bell to ring, and guessed wrong. Fortunately, it was in a recording session, not a live performance, so we just did it over again. Solfege practice has also helped me “hear” what a bell will sound like before I pick it up. That’s extremely useful when I don’t quite remember what happens next.

Memorize in small blocks, perhaps 2 to 4 measures at a time, in logical segments like a phrase, plus one note (so you have a sense of what’s next). Start slowly, and work up to tempo over time. Get very comfortable with those measures at your practice tempo, then work on the next small block. When you’re ready, join the 2 blocks. This approach is much easier than trying to learn the entire piece at once. However, it assumes you’ve worked out the choreography ahead of time. If you find at measure 17 that you should have set up a four-in-hand or displaced a bell back at measure 12, you have to relearn measure 12. That’s because playing measure 12 requires playing not only the notes in that measure, but preparing for future measures. Work out the overall plan of the piece before you memorize anything.

Memorizing movement: Whenever possible, establish choreography based on how you instinctively reach for the bells. That will be easier to remember than something more complicated. Try starting the passage on the opposite hand before deciding, as that may result in a better flow. Try to choreograph a repeating section the same way each time it occurs. That may not be possible if it appears in a different octave, but at least consider it. Always have a good reason for displacing a bell, and see if there’s another way to accomplish the same thing without displacement, or to restore the bell to its home position as soon as possible. Nothing is more disconcerting to a solo ringer than feeling like the table is one giant jumble of bells.

If you document the choreography as you go along, that will help you learn it. I like to enlarge the sheet music and make notes directly on it, when it’s in the public domain. If the music is copyrighted, you can’t legally enlarge it without permission. Making photocopies of music for any reason is a right specifically reserved to the copyright holder under U.S. law. You can write to the publisher and ask for permission, or you can just keep your notes in a separate place. I like to use a piece of lined notebook paper, starting each line with the measure number, and using standard solo notation or other reminders. I’ll skip lines on the page as needed to make room for notes on intervening measures.

Aids to memorizing: As you memorize the piece, sing the note names aloud, or just sing “da.” This reinforces the music in your memory. Don’t be self-conscious about how well you sing. For note names that would require an extra beat, like F sharp, use solfege syllables:

C# – cease
D# – deese
F# – feese
G# – geese
A# – ace

Db – dess
Eb – ess
Gb – guess
Ab- ice
Bb – bess

Learning the piece this way allows you to practice it even when you don’t have bells in front of you, such as while riding your bike, gardening, or waiting for someone. Remember to memorize not only your own part, but what happens in the accompaniment when you’re not ringing, so you can plan your entrances.

I like to find a version of the music on iTunes being played by someone whose interpretation I admire. I can buy it, put a whole concert’s worth of pieces on a CD, and play it in the car while I’m driving. Because so few of the bell solos I play are available as handbell recordings, I find another version, like cello.

You can also learn the words if the piece is a song or hymn. That helps not only to anchor the notes, but to express the emotion of the piece. If you ring it as you would sing it, it will nearly always sound better. However, that won’t help if you’re staring at the table in performance wondering which bell to pick up next. Learn to associate the words with specific bells. The words can also help you keep your place; sometimes it’s hard to remember if you’re on the first verse or the second verse, especially under performance stress.

As I mentioned in the article about practicing, you need to correct a mistake by playing that part through 3 times in a row, correctly. If you make a mistake, reset the counter to zero. This weights your memory in favor of the correct version, rather than the mistake. There is no substitute for repetition in memorization, but be sure you’re repeating the correct version, not the mistake.

Setup: Remember to memorize not just how to play the piece, but how to set it up. The audience is watching you the entire time you’re on stage, and you want to inspire a feeling of confidence. If you forget to preset a bell correctly, you’ll probably make a mistake when you need that bell in the piece, or you may get so distracted when you notice it that it causes unrelated mistakes. Once I have the concert order, I practice the transitions, setting up each piece in order (from memory) and then playing it. If I forget part of the setup, I don’t stop; I keep playing and work my way through it to practice recovery skills.

Sometimes I’ll count how many changes to the keyboard I need to make in the setup. It’s easier to remember that I move 7 bells before the piece starts than it is to remember which seven. I can look at the table after it’s set up, count the number of changes, and see if I missed something. Sometimes I can look at the extras table and see if there are too many or too few bells on it, which means I have a mistake on the main table. I also create an index card for each piece to record the setup. I list the title, composer (with dates), arranger, key signature, and how long the piece takes. Then I draw a map of the table. Below that I list what bells I start with, which hand starts, and whether I come in alone, with the piano, or after the piano. Just creating the card is often enough to sear the setup in my memory, but I have them at the performance in case I get flustered. The cards are also handy when it’s time to create the printed concert program.

Testing memorization: You memorize with your eyes (visual memory), your ears (aural memory), and your body (kinesthetic or motor memory). To test your recollection and find the weaknesses, deprive yourself of one or more of these senses. For example, close your eyes and sing the note names, visualizing yourself moving and picking up each bell. Or sing the piece to yourself and visualize the notes on a staff. Another approach is to close your eyes (or put on a sleep mask) and play the piece. Do your hands know where to find the bells, and where to put them back? Do your feet know where and how far to go? Try standing on the other side of the table (or relocate the table) to see if you still remember the piece without the visual landmarks of your practice space. Test your recall by playing your part from memory on the piano.

My favorite approach is to stand at the bell table and pretend to ring each bell while not allowing it to sound, then put it down and pick up the next bell. I do this at a slower tempo than performance tempo. This deprives me of the audible feedback of hearing the right note; I have to hear it in my head. It also deprives me of the “automatic pilot” mode that I get into after I’ve learned a piece, and exposes the weak spots in my memory. Those are the spots most likely to fail in performance, where we tend to play more with intention than we do in practice. Those are the spots that need extra practice before the performance.

Try playing the piece with the radio on, to test your concentration. I like to use the weather radio, because I’m subconsciously listening for “the forecast for Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and vicinity.” If I can play the piece through and listen to the accompaniment without knowing if it’s going to rain tomorrow (let’s face it, it probably will!), then my memorization is solid. This helps me remember my part when I get distracted in performance, as will reminding myself to focus. At a recent performance, I noticed several of my friends had come to hear me. I told myself, “never mind who’s here, just ring.”

For bell choir musicians: If you’re a choir ringer, you probably ring mostly with sheet music, but need to memorize page turns and places where you have to watch the director, like a ritard. I like to teach page turns by first drilling the system at the top of the second page, so ringers develop confidence in what they’re aiming for. Then play the last system at the bottom of the first page, and turn the page. Drill those 8 measures or so until the page turn is seamless, and everyone in the choir knows when to turn the page and with which hand. You may want to write that in. You’re likely to have to memorize at least one measure, and I suggest memorizing part of the bottom of the first page, rather than the top of the next page. That way, you get a quick look at it before you turn the page.

At places where the director wants you to watch, use a pencil and ruler to draw a “watch box” around the measures. Then you know when to look up and can find your place easily when you look back down. (You can read more about this in the article on Marking music.)  Always work on your memorization in bell choir rehearsal, even if the director is working with ringers in another section. Turn your bells sideways, and play along silently. See how much you can remember by looking at the director and not the music. By the time the other ringers have their part figured out, you’ll have memorized yours. If you don’t need to do this at the part your director is drilling with someone else, pick some measures where you do need the extra practice. This uses rehearsal time much more efficiently than chatting with your neighbor or wandering off.

Some beginning handbell musicians may need help remembering how to read or interpret sheet music. You can use mnemonics (like FACE for the space lines on the treble staff), or words to represent rhythm figures (like states or animals or pies). I’ll write more about that another time, or you can ask a more experienced ringer to explain it. You can remember the bell numbering system by recalling that C5 is middle C, and that the octave number always changes at C. You can remember how to read key signatures by learning the predictable order in which sharps and flats always occur. You can remember whether to use your left hand or your right hand by recalling that the lower note (on the space) is generally in your left hand and the higher note (on the line) is in your right hand, using the most common assigning method. I highly recommend Doug Wagner’s inexpensive ‘Ringer’s Reference Guide’ to help you remember other things, like technique notation. You can keep it in your binder and look up something quickly.

You can order recordings from The Ultimate Ring Binder. This is a service offered by Alanna Teragawa. If a publisher has made a demo recording of a piece, Alanna will put it on a CD for you and pay the royalties. I email her a list of pieces (with arranger and catalog number) at the beginning of the season, tell her how many CDs I need, and she sends them to me at a very modest cost. Listening to the piece over and over again, and singing or ringing along, helps solidify your memory of it.

Beginning four-in-hand ringers may have difficulty remembering which bell is which. I found it much easier to learn four-in-hand with three bells (two in one hand and one in the other). Then add the fourth bell when you can keep track of the first three. It also helps to have an overall strategy, like picking up the largest bell as the primary bell, and setting up in thirds. Learn to feel the relative weight of the bells; the heaviest bell is lowest, and the lightest bell is highest. Use the available solo notation to create reminders in your music.

Performing from memory: In performance, try to attain a flow of music. Now it’s time to make music, not process notes. Instead of thinking too hard, let your hands do what you trained them to do. Sing the piece in your head so you know where you’re headed next. If you have a memory lapse in performance (and it happens to all of us), forgive yourself, forget it for the moment, and come back in at a secure place. Take action to prevent it from happening again. Note those measures immediately after the performance. If you don’t know the measure numbers, write the words or something else to remind you later (though these mistakes can be hard to forget!). This is the part you need to drill relentlessly before you next perform the piece. Don’t be afraid of it; be prepared.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,